Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Legislators hold off on sex offender laws

After two years of stronger legislation, Dems put clamp on key proposal

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ANNAPOLIS — Two years after Maryland adopted Jessica’s Law to clamp down on child-sex predators, top Democrats are taking a pass on efforts to further strengthen laws against convicted pedophiles.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle sponsored bills this year aimed at eliminating good behavior credits that shorten prisoners’ sentences. But the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that handle criminal law want to see what effect the tougher laws adopted over the past two years will have before making changes.

‘‘We haven’t had an experience that we can evaluate from extending the prison terms and reducing the possibility of parole, so to extend the amount of time they spend in jail further may be a little early,” said Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda.

The issue has been a cause célèbre for Republicans who contend there are few more important laws that the General Assembly can take up than protecting children.

‘‘Why we protect these criminals who prey upon our children is beyond my understanding and that’s what we are doing if we allow diminution credits,” said Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon, a leading voice on strengthening penalties against child-sex predators.

Prisoners can earn up to 10 days per month in ‘‘good time” credits, meaning they can shave more than three years off a 10-year sentence. That, supporters say, is unacceptable.

‘‘What do we have to do, wait a couple years to see how many of our kids are going to get victimized?” asked House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, who pushed the diminution bill in his chamber. ‘‘We’ve got a loophole in Jessica’s Law and the powers that be for some reason don’t want to close it.”

House Republicans saw their hopes extinguished when O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby tried to tack his bill on to a measure sponsored by Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore that would have extended diminution credits for certain drug offenders.

That bill was moved back to committee and has been withdrawn.

‘‘He was trying to put a bill on that had already failed,” said House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro.

Some Republicans agree that it’s too soon to eliminate diminution credits.

‘‘Just like Jessica’s Law, it will take some time to form a critical mass,” said House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, who favors a legislative study of diminution credits before eliminating them.

The credits may have a purpose in the correctional system, said Shank, whose district includes three medium-security prisons — Roxbury Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Training Center and Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown.

‘‘Diminution credits do have a role in prison management because it’s a carrot-and-stick approach that my correctional officers tell me is important to maintain the discipline in the institutions, but it has grown so incredibly complex that it’s an area where the General Assembly rightly should ask some questions about how these credits are being applied,” he said.

Other Republicans complained that the bill was shelved because of the influence of defense attorneys in the legislature, a roster that includes Frosh, Vallario and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

‘‘Lawyers tend to side with judges on judicial discretion, and they consider this judicial discretion and I don’t,” Jacobs said.

It also illustrates how Democrats will not allow Republicans to grab hold of the legislative agenda, O’Donnell said. ‘‘They don’t want to continue to have us dragging them across the line on this stuff.”

Republicans were the chief advocates for the passage of Jessica’s Law during the 2006 special session and its expansion last year. The law sets mandatory minimum sentences for convicted sex predators and reduces the possibility of parole for the most serious offenders.

Some sex offender legislation has progressed this year, particularly bills to require stricter registration and supervision of past offenders. A bill that strengthens penalties against possessors of child pornography also met little resistance in the chambers.

Still outstanding are measures that aim to help victims, which is long overdue, advocates said.

‘‘I think it’s disappointing that the legislature has been more willing to punish offenders than they have been to respond to victims’ needs and we’re still working on that and hoping to improve as the term goes on,” said Lisae C. Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.